In any group of students studying a course, each student will have their own knowledge, skills and attitudes. If the tools and techniques used to support learning take account of these individual characteristics then the learning can be described as 'student-centred learning'. Alan Oxley focuses on e-learning, which is a type of student-centred learning.

Student-centred learning does not have to be 'individualised learning' i.e. with the student working alone. It can involve interaction with other students and/or an instructor. Some programmes of study are 'bricks and mortar' based, in that students attend classes at the institution. Other programmes of study are based online. Yet others are blended approaches where some of the courses making up the programme are 'bricks and mortar' while others are online.

e-learning has come of age. This is evidenced by the number of posts in educational establishments that have arisen to cope with its impact. Many of these learning providers are changing from a teaching environment to a learning environment. There is some variation in the departments that host e-learning posts. At universities they can be positioned within the library, an academic department, the learning services unit or the IT services department. Similar posts occur, too, at further education (FE) colleges, sixth-form colleges and mixed economy colleges (FE and higher education [HE]).

The job titles of the above posts include phrases such as 'learning development', 'e-learning', 'learning resources', 'e-strategy', and 'learning technology'. Some of the posts involve more than e-learning provision. For example, posts with 'learning development' in the title often involve the incumbent looking at all sorts of ways of improving teaching and learning, although e-learning will be a major feature of the work. The purpose of e-learning posts, at educational establishments, is to lead the e-learning strategy of the relevant establishment.

To begin formulating an e-learning strategy, an educational establishment should begin by consulting the relevant bodies in their sector. As far as HE is concerned, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has an e-learning policy. The body charged with offering IT advice and e-learning advice to universities is the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). JISC tries to ensure that its activities are consistent with HEFCE policy and it provides feedback to them so that future policy is well-informed. The Higher Education Academy is another useful body in this respect and was set up to promote scholarship in teaching and learning.

JISC also supports FE colleges. It has regional support centres whose job is to promote e-learning. They help to identify e-learning needs in colleges, visiting them where necessary. They also have a programme of activities in which colleges can participate. Another body that provides e-learning support to FE colleges, as well as schools, is Becta. It tries to ensure consistency across colleges and schools in their approach to e-learning. Impetus stems from a 2005 initiative by the Department for Children, Schools and Families entitled Harnessing Technology: Transforming learning and children's services.

Having sought advice from JISC, the Higher Education Academy and Becta, senior managers in academia have to consider how e-learning is to be developed in their educational establishments. They could begin by identifying some aims, such as:

  • e-learning will be central to teaching and learning.
  • e-learning will be used wherever there is evidence to suggest an improvement in the effectiveness of administration, learning and teaching.
  • Suitable resources will be chosen, and encouragement will be given, to help e-learning become an acceptable way of learning.
  • e-learning will be easy to use and accessible, both locally and remotely.
  • The benefits that e-learning possesses, over traditional methods, will be exploited so as to promote widening participation.

Smaller establishments will be able to develop an institution-wide strategy. However, larger ones may not, as they face several difficulties, such as:

  • The size of the problem.
  • Power is decentralised.
  • The college may have been formed from a merging of smaller establishments, all with there own character.

In larger establishments, there will be differences between one academic department and another. These include:

  • the extent to which e-learning is used;
  • the instructors' expertise with e-learning;
  • the resources available for implementing e-learning;
  • the extent to which they plan to use e-learning in the future.

Having an institution-wide strategy for a large establishment may not be a good idea as academic departments would have different starting points, be progressing at different rates of change and have different end points.

Irrespective of the size of institution, there needs to be a shift in culture so that e-learning becomes commonplace. Instructors obviously need to possess the skills so that they are able to embrace e-learning. Thought has to be given to how to achieve this cultural change.

As a first step, the institution's aims as regards to e-learning, described above, need to be conveyed to instructors. Instructors then need to be involved in formulating plans to achieve the aims. In this day and age it is a fundamental requirement that instructors are computer literate. They should also be proficient with the groupware software in use at their establishment. This enables them to arrange meetings, handle email, look at shared folders etc. As far as e-learning skills are concerned, instructors must gain expertise in the particular virtual learning environment that is in use. A popular example is Blackboard Vista VLE. An institution can amend it in order to develop an in-house VLE (for example, Coventry University's CUOnline). Administrative staff, too, need to undergo relevant IT training.

To summarise, it is essential that all institution staff need to use the relevant computer tools in order to support their interaction with the e-learning environment. An institution's human resources department will need to adjust job descriptions accordingly.

With the strategy in place, the e-learning manager can them embark on carrying it out. Primarily this involves ensuring that online delivery, including the virtual learning environment, is fully utilised by the academic departments to enhance learning, and ensuring that best use is made of the resources that support e-learning. Other activities include piloting new teaching techniques, undertaking teaching staff development activities, promoting computer literacy, developing teaching materials for the VLE and web authoring. The e-learning manager would need to monitor and adhere to best practice.

The library should be a key resource to university students and researchers. In many courses, students are required to write essays and undertake projects. There is a temptation for the student to simply use tools such as Google and Wikipedia for all their information needs. Most scholarly work is, however, not available to the general public. Institutions subscribe to academic databases.

Students need to be shown the facilities that are available in the institution's library. This can be achieved with the aid of an online tool. Postgraduate students and lecturers conducting research need to carry out literature reviews. They too need to be made aware of library facilities. Software tools are available for educating both cohorts. As an example, Imperial College, London, uses OLIVIA and PILOT for undergraduates and researchers, respectively.

Students undertaking self-study, at the computer, need to have somewhere on campus where they can log on. This could be in computer labs that are not currently in use by instructors, or in the library or other learning centre. There could be a learning centre based centrally as well as satellite centres in the academic departments. Access to online resources, although perhaps not via a campus computer, needs to be 24/7.

There are many differences between traditional ways of teaching, learning and assessment done by a computer. For example, when an assessment is undertaken by a computer there is no bias. Online assessments free up valuable instructor time and are especially useful for testing key skills, such as language and mathematics.

Educational establishments who do not provide up-to-date resources will suffer in this competitive market place.

About the author

Alan Oxley is a lecturer, with the grade of associate professor, for American InterContinental University London. AIU London has been teaching students for 31 years.